Story by Lisa K. Anderson // Photography by Molly DeCoudreaux
You can’t miss Lucy.
She’s 15,000 pounds, bright orange, and tattooed with an image of two men—The Taco Guys.
Surrounded by farmers and artisans, she’s camped in a San Rafael parking lot that hosts the Agricultural Institute of Marin’s Thursday farmers market. Jason Hoffman and Justin Close, The Taco Guys, invite me aboard Lucy and chronicle the two years they’ve spent on their mobile food truck.
“First, let’s get you fed,” Jason says, handing me a spicy berry lemonade. As he hops outside to greet the lunch crowd gathering in front of the truck, Justin prepares my plate.
I watch him layer fresh meats, colorful produce, sauces, and sprinkles of cheeses onto four golden taco shells: seared red cabbage, house pickled mango, and sprouts sit atop smoked Berkshire pork. Cucumber pomegranate salad, bacon vinaigrette, and cotija cheese swirl onto grilled chicken with herbs.
This isn’t a taqueria, and you won’t find any traditional Mexican tacos here. Instead, the tortillas feature local, sustainable, and seasonal ingredients, and a fusion of international flavors—all assembled in a truck.
“We’ve taken the $200 piece of china and replaced it with a tortilla,” Jason says. “It looks pretty and it’s really different, but ultimately it’s a taco, to be enjoyed standing up.”
Justin serves me the quatro: Maui fish, Kalua pork, Kotopolo chicken, and Colorado beef tacos, which are too vivid for me not to photograph with my phone before devouring. My favorite is a mainstay on the menu: Maui fish—panko-battered Pacific ono, pickled red onions, pico de gallo, shredded cabbage, and Sriracha mayo.
In fact, the Maui fish tacos were one of the few foods that made Tanya Small, director of markets and market manager for the Agricultural Institute of Marin, feel better amid terrible nausea during her first pregnancy.
“They are doing what we are trying to promote,” Small says. “Sourcing everything local and supporting farmers who come to the markets.”
The Taco Guys made an official foray into the Bay Area mobile food world in April 2010, at Ford Street Farmers Market in San Rafael. Tired of corporate restaurant environments, Jason and Justin exited careers with some of the most celebrated San Francisco establishments and followed the “whisper” of a Bay Area food truck scene they heard about in 2009.
“We thought we had seen it all [as fine dining chefs],” Jason says of the early months. “We were like bowling pins in a box.”
Despite being on the verge of a mental breakdown because of the crowds, and collectively losing about seven pounds over six days, The Taco Guys gained instant fame at their first event in August 2010: Eat Real, a food festival in Oakland.
Working in a 20-foot box with a line of 100 people was at first overwhelming, and made the guys snap at each other, but they emerged with the No. 1 ranking from San Francisco Weekly.
During the spring and summer, a light day for The Taco Guys lasts 12 hours. They know 2 a.m. well, and it isn’t unusual for them to tackle 20-hour days. “There are some insane people who will follow us anywhere, any time of day,” Jason says, describing Maui fish taco fans, in particular. “I feel like a drug dealer or something.”
Jason shakes Lucy from the side, explaining how she derived her name; almost everything on the truck seemed loose at first, causing “tragically funny scenes.” Justin recalls when her wheels seized in Oakland, and the guys had to stop every few blocks to spray them down with water so the truck wouldn’t catch fire. Her name is also a nod to a mural of the alluring Mexican revolutionary painted on the oldest taqueria in San Francisco, La Cumbre.
Their own name came when drunks exiting bars late in the night stumbled toward Lucy, Jason, and Justin, yelling “Hey! It’s the taco guys!”
Best friends before becoming business partners, Jason and Justin met in 1998 working as cooks at the Waterfront at Pier 7 in San Francisco. After working at the restaurant nearly a year, Jason pegged Justin as the new cocky competition. There the pecking order was strong, and Justin moved straight to the sauté station, a coveted ground, upon arrival.
“You had to earn your stripes to get there,” Jason says, recounting his indignation.
After grabbing post-work beers for several months, the guys ventured to Great America, San Francisco’s amusement park, and a friendship stuck. Making it through the long theme park lines and not getting annoyed with each other was a pleasant surprise.
The pair’s culinary history dates back to childhood. Jason had the Nestle Tollhouse Chocolate Chip cookie recipe memorized by the time he was seven years old, and knew how to modify it; as a teenager, he was a muffin boy at Patio Café, a gay-friendly eatery in the Castro District. Justin describes his stomping grounds of Oakland and Berkeley as food meccas. He got his start in catering after thinking he’d pursue a medical trade.
The Taco Guys were truly nomadic at first, conducting what they call guerrilla events—spontaneous appearances announced solely via social media—in Marin County, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland. Now they have a more stable schedule, with fewer late nights and more private events. Still, their itinerant philosophy remains: “Taco Guys is a good outlet for our attention spans,” Jason says. “Every day there’s some new adventure. We’re bound by nothing—that’s one of the things that makes it so fun.”
From the early days, The Taco Guys have made a presence at internationally acclaimed farmers markets and Off the Grid, the forefront of the Bay Area’s mobile food scene that boasts 13 markets (The Taco Guys work three of these markets and plan to expand to South Bay in 2012).
Matt Cohen, director of Off the Grid, personally vets each mobile food truck. To him, the Taco Guys were on the leading edge of leaping from formal kitchen to mobile vending, and their food reflects what they care about.
“Their character comes through in the strong, bold food they create,” he says.
With a burgeoning mobile food scene in the Bay Area comes contention from brick-and-mortar restaurant owners, who face competition. Further complication comes from a complex permitting system mobile food trucks must abide by—and different permits in each city.
“The [food cart] wave is still building and it’s a big one,” Jason says. “It’s full of lots of people with fine dining backgrounds who want their own restaurants but can’t afford brick and mortar.”
While they acknowledge general contention between the mobile food scene and restaurants, The Taco Guys claim that if a restaurant is truly great, the mobile food scene shouldn’t deter its business.
At this point, The Taco Guys are fully permitted in San Francisco, the markets, and their Off the Grid locations (which help to expedite and streamline the processes for vendors).
Before their permits were complete, though, The Taco Guys faced a few scares. While outside a bar in downtown Oakland, police officers approached the guys, and they feared they’d be shut down. Quite the opposite. The cops thanked The Taco Guys for their public service, saying they appreciated that the tacos set drunks back to equilibrium and helped to make late nights safer.
The Taco Guys enjoy roaming their stomping grounds, but Berkeley is their favorite for its shine and vibe. “We love it,” Jason says. “The view, the way people receive it.”
In the next five years, The Taco Guys hope to own five taco trucks and open a storefront in the Bay Area. For now, their focus lies on their shared food philosophy and sense of adventure.
Whether parked with Lucy at a farmers market, conversing with fellow mobile food vendors, or planning their first vacations in two years, food is at the forefront of Jason and Justin’s minds. They even dream about recipes.
“We’re always moving forward,” Jason says. “We never sit still.”